Two minutes after our meals have been delivered, precisely at that moment when a server would return to ask, “Is everything OK?” we are visited by Nal owner Ruben Peregrina himself, who asks instead, “How are the flavors?” Our answer is an unqualified “amazing.”
It might seem an unusual question, but at Nal, it is perfectly appropriate, because flavor—flavors, more accurately—is the heart of this cozy place. Three forkfuls into a dish of red snapper a la Veracruz, I was already wowed by a piquant tomato sauce that was rich with capers, olives and peppers. That kind of zestiness recurs across Nal’s small but tantalizing menu. Had they served the sauce atop a boiled shoe, I could have died happy.
Since late winter, when I’d begun to hear whispers of its opening, Nal ranked No. 1 on my list of must-try restaurants. Via social media, the Peregrinas—Ruben and his wife, chef Miriam—had promised something different. They had much of the cuisines they had encountered on the journey from their native Mexico to Brazil, where a succession of colonists and settlers from Europe, Africa, Japan and the Middle East fused their culinary ideas with those of the indigenous peoples and ingredients to create a complex, regionally diverse cuisine.
Nal owners Miriam and Ruben Peregrina.//Photo by Joe del Tufoâ€‹
Not that you’ll find anything purely Brazilian or purely Mexican or purely anything else at Nal. One dish originates in pre-colonial Mexico, before the country could claim a Spanish name. Some dishes are influenced by Peruvian cuisine, others by Spain and the Basque Country. And though some variation of the Veracruz-style sauce is claimed by any number of Mediterranean cuisines, the Peregrinas have made it their own. Even Kennett finds its way onto the menu. The couple have, indeed, delivered something different.
On the evening of our visit, we were greeted warmly by a server who was clearly enthused by the food and all too happy to share what he knew, as well as the offer of a Caipirinha. The dining room was a surprise: small, spare and contemporary in a way one might associate with a sushi place—walls the color of pewter, sleek Euro-style tables and chairs, red napkins offering a pop of color. The lack of cultural touches and decorating clichés leaves a lot of space for diners to approach the food without preconception or suggestion.
We skipped common starters such as queso fundido, tortilla soup and guacamole (traditional or blended with roasted corn and chipotle salsa), opting instead for pescadillas de atún a la Vizcaína. Described as corn turnovers filled with tuna, they present as crispy-edged pan-fried tortillas folded like tacos around tuna, shrimp, bell peppers and more tomatoes, olives and capers.
Ceviche.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Limiting the menu allows the kitchen to focus all its energy on perfect execution of recipes from Miriam Peregrina’s family and friends abroad. We found the ceviche—a personal obsession—to be fresh and bright, a far cry from the over-marinated messes served at some places. The red snapper kept its toothsome texture. Lime and cilantro spoke clearly. A garnish of jicama and fried chips of purple potatoes made fun, delicious scoops.
We were disappointed to learn that the lamb mixiote, a traditional Mexican dish of seasoned meat barbecued in a wrap of agave, was unavailable (a lapse we could easily forgive—we later learned the restaurant had been open only 10 days). We opted instead for the red snapper Veracruz and the shrimp moqueca. The stew—shrimp, squash and other vegetables cooked with a palm-fruit oil called dende from Brazil—was served in the traditional mortar of volcanic rock with a side of jasmine rice cooked in coconut milk. It was, in its way, as delicious as the red snapper—richer than I expected, certainly more exotic, thanks to the strong flavor of the dende oil.
Veracruz-style red snapper.//Photo by Joe del Tufoâ€‹
Sated but not satisfied with our too-shallow dive into the warm waters of other Latin American foods, it was futile to resist sampling Nal’s chile relleno. A staple on Mexican menus, the version at Nal is anything but the usual. Coarse masa on the poblano replaces the typical egg batter to lend a pleasant crispiness, but the real surprise comes inside where, rather than the usual filling of melted cheese, you’ll find a blend of sautéed Kennett mushrooms, combined with just enough Chihuahua cheese to give it some richness. A touch of hot pepper salsa gives the dish Nal’s signature piquancy.
We never dipped into the small offering of tacos and tamales, which show all the novelty (for this area) and allure of the rest of the menu. I’m especially sorry—downright regretful, looking back—that I didn’t try the deviled shrimp tacos (shellfish with chipotles in melted Gruyère), but there is always next time.
Shrimp stew moqueca.//Photo by Joe del Tufoâ€‹â€‹
We did relent on the server’s suggestion of dessert—the most delicious tres leches cake I’ve ever tasted. And Ruben earlier offered a “taste” of a Chilean wine he was considering for his list. The taste proved to be a full pour, which says something about the Peregrinas’ philosophy of hospitality, as does the small menu for children.
One quibble: The portions seem a bit petite for the prices (I’ll blame the cost of rent in the neighborhood), but they’re prices I’d gladly pay anytime for meals that are so deliciously different.
1304B Old Lancaster Pike, Hockessin • 239-4539
Prices: Starters, $5–$12; tacos and tamales, $10–$16; entrées, $18–$24
Recommended: Ceviche de Pescado en Leche de Tigre, Huachinango a la Veracruzana